IMPACT SEP 2015: Engaged CEOs instrumental in driving effective fundraising

IMPACT Philanthropy QUT

Perpetual Impact

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Q&A with Dr Wendy Scaife

A longitudinal study of Australian CEOs by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has found that more engaged and informed chief executives can be instrumental in driving effective fundraising activity. We talk to Dr Wendy Scaife, Acting Director of QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, about the role that CEOs play in achieving better fundraising outcomes. 

Raising funds is critical to success and longevity for any not-for-profit organisation. While the leg-work of fundraising is often the domain of fundraising staff, better engagement from CEOs and boards can be instrumental to achieving better outcomes. 

Research conducted by the Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies has reaffirmed the central role of CEOs in the effective raising of funds. Dr Wendy Scaife, who is leading the study, believes that leadership from CEOs, and better cooperation between CEOs, boards and fundraising staff, can really improve fundraising results. She shares with us some of the insights from her research efforts and extensive experience with not-for-profit organisations.

Q. How important is the role of a CEO in successful fundraising? 

CEOs can be exceptionally busy. They have so many responsibilities outside of fundraising and they don’t always have a background in hands-on fundraising activity. However, their role is critical. They are the lynchpin for change in any organisation and can act as an important pivot point or conduit between boards and fundraising staff. They are conveniently placed to act as a voice for both boards and staff, and greater understanding of how effective fundraising works from the top of an organisation can really filter through to great outcomes. 

Fundraising staff turnover can be a significant issue in the not-for-profit sector and it can have a real impact on gifting. 

If CEOs are not in tune with their organisation and they have a passing parade of fundraising staff, that is really going to hinder the generation of the best outcomes possible.

Q. How can CEOs improve their fundraising expertise? 

Our research has focused on a study tour as a potential tool for bringing change through education. We organised a tour to the Association of Fundraising Professionals Conference in San Antonio in 2014, as well as site visits to successful organisations.

Prior to the tour, we asked our participating CEOs to set goals for change so we could best cater to their areas of interest. Typically, CEOs felt they would like to gain more knowledge around overall fundraising strategies, how to build deeper engagement with support staff and the mechanisms of fundraising - such as corporate partnerships and electronic fundraising. 

We found the study tour to be a powerful tool for learning. It provided the CEOs with some terrific insights into these key topics as well as a real opportunity for thinking – a time to reflect, away from the busy pressures of their usual day-to-day routines. 

Additionally, and perhaps even more interesting, was the value the CEOs gained out of the peer-to-peer interaction. They could share experiences and bounce around ideas with respected peers from a range of different organisations. A real community emerged and the CEOs wanted to continue to maintain contact following the tour. They have since established teleconference calls, where they are able to catch up every six weeks and continue exchanging ideas and experiences.

Q. What are some of the ways CEOs can improve fundraising outcomes? 

CEOs need to understand the opportunities and challenges of fundraising. It takes very particular skills to be an effective fundraiser so it’s important to invest in the right team and commit to supporting them. It’s very costly to get new teams - and donors. CEOs should think about building long-term relationships with fundraising staff and supporting them to stay so they can build effective networks with donors. 

CEOs can also help to improve fundraising outcomes by developing a deep understanding of the fundraising process and mechanisms through conferences and other ongoing learning. Certainly, what our study has found, is that peer-to-peer learning is enormously powerful, so collaborating with peers from other non-competitor fundraising organisations is something many chief executives should consider.

Q. How important is it for CEOs, boards and fundraising staff to work together? 

Each party needs to work to their strengths. Boards tend to hold a lot of the history and stories of an organisation as well as strong networks with donors. They often have the connections and the ‘gee-wiz’ factor that can make people want to do more. It is important to ensure that these good connections are tapped into by both the CEO and the fundraising team. Organisations must have a clear understanding of the history of donors and their reasons for supporting. 

There are also small things boards can do, which can go a long way towards helping the fundraising outcomes of an organisation. For example, a hand-written or personalised letter from a board member to a donor is very powerful. Board members can also use their position to assist, such as through the donation of a boardroom space or other in-kind help.

Q. What are the three most important things boards should consider before investing in fundraising capability?

Boards could consider how ready they are as an organisation to win additional funding. Do they have the constituency likely to become donors? Do they have a compelling cause and do they have a willingness to ask and engage people in that cause? You need to be able to engage supporters in the great work of the organisation, for people to be able to give.

The board also needs to think about how they can assist in building relationships. You want to build a growing family of supporters.

Boards should think about what they can do to support their CEO’s understanding of fundraising, so they can lead the organisation to its potential.

Read the interim report on the impact of a fundraising study tour on CEOs and their organisations.

This research has been supported by the Perpetual Foundation, the Samuel and Eileen Gluyas Charitable Trust and the Edward Corbould Charitable Trust.

For more sector research visit our Not-For-Profits and Charities page.


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